Reading is such a sensual experience. I remember my first books, which were old and fusty, not by their content but by their smell. The mixed aromas of age, ancient scents of my grandparents mingled with the perfume that came from the very paper and ink. But the thing I remember most from these times was the illustrations: full page and lovely, glorious and extravagant, I held my breath as I read, hoping to see The Tower of Babel, The Mountain Troll, The Elephant’s Child. And I realise now, it was this that punctured through the intervening time - the image was the thing.
When I found The Diamond Fairy Book online I was faced with my past, and discovered a book I had thought consigned to my memory. But there it was, and the images brought back the time and place that I last read it. And then I wondered, why do we stop reading books with images? For most of us who are over 25, we will have given up illustrated books by our early teens. Some us would have moved from Tin Tin and Asterix, to Marvel comics, but from there we would probably have leapt to the delights of James Herbert or Jilly Cooper, before moving on to more serious literature. However, the younger readers among us will be more familiar with Graphic Novel in all its forms; to those of us who still took O levels, the illustrated book still seems just a little bit, dare we say it, childish? It’s time to put your prejudices behind you, and embrace the graphic form.
If you thought the Graphic Novel was simply a grown up version of a Marvel comic, now is the time to shatter that illusion. First look at Maus; an eloquent and unsentimental exploration of the holocaust by Art Spiegleman. Then turn to Tove Jansson’s Moomin: The Complete Comic Strip, Volumes I and II ,for the dry humour and wit of this consummate observer of the foibles of humans.
Moving from the Scandinavian wisdom of Jansen, you could now discover the African artistry of Aya by Marguerite Abouet . Set in the Ivory Coast, in 1978, this is generally unreported story of an untroubled Africa where working class teenagers worry only about homework and boys, rather than genocide and AIDS.
From this beautifully told story, return to our own shores, to the wonderful Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds who skillfully mis-works the Flaubert classic; and finally, for your Graphic education, enjoy the fabulous reimagining of classic novels such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, now beautifully retold in graphic form by Tim Hamilton.
Look if you dare at Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis: All 50 Chapters where his thickly thighed ladies and hirsute gents tell the tale of all tales. Or eschew the word altogether and read Arrival by the deeply talented Shaun Tan.
Dive deeply and fulsomely into the arms of Isabella Rossellini and her visual feast that is Green Porno complete with DVD! She is a woman of no vanity, as you will see. This Is For You by Rob Ryan is a gorgeous visual and tactile feast, a masterpiece of cut-out complexity that tells a simple universal tale of love and longing in a supremely different form to almost any other book commonly available to all.
And what of the books themselves, the look and feel of the books, the typeface, the paper, the cover, the smell of it all? My favourite books are just that because of what they look like; I want the right edition, or else it simply won’t do. Remember Winston in 1984 obsessively caressing his diary, because it smelled so beautiful, and felt so lovely, that he is compelled to write in it despite risking his freedom in doing so. In this age of the e-book and the Kindle, we should revel in the sensuality of the book itself. Find some wonderful editions of books that you have strong memories of, and enjoy the craft of a finely made book. Take off its dust cover and hold it lovingly to the light: delight in it for this is what reading is: the sum of all our pleasures.
By Charlotte Raby and Ella Berthoud